Perhaps you’ve heard about a little movie that’s opening this week called “Man of Steel.” The small, under-the-radar, kitchen sink drama follows the adventures of one Superman as he struggles with the kind of identity issues familiar to many x-ray sighted, preternaturally strong orphan aliens gifted with the power of flight, and saves humankind from a terrible peril. Our review will be coming later today, and while we’re not going to include “Man of Steel” in our rating of the Superman films right now, come back next week when more of us have seen it and you can argue over its correct placement.
Part of what makes Superman so compelling is how, all the way back in the 1930s, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel basically cannily repackaged a whole host of ancient myths and archetypes into a brightly-colored, exciting new format — the comic strip — and how in the years since, the Superman story has essentially ingrained itself into our collective pop culture experience to the point of becoming itself one of those very myths. But if the Superman story now exists in a kind of timeless, unassailable position in the hive mind, the films it inspired don’t necessarily share that honor. Often reflecting the times they were made in, in rather obvious and distracting ways (computers! nuclear paranoia!), not all the movie incarnations come close to embodying what’s so endlessly engaging about the Superman story. Here’s how we reckon the existing theatrical releases stack up against each other, in reverse order of quality.
Worst: “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace”
This is probably the nadir of Superman movies this far for so, so many reasons, but chief among them has to be simply the shoddiness and cheapness of the whole endeavor. With original producers the Salkinds having sold the rights to Cannon Films, a low-budget outfit at heart, production costs were cut from the outset, with Christopher Reeve recalling, about the scene outside the United Nations building which was shot for budgetary reasons in Milton Keynes, England, that “[we were] hampered by budget constraints and cutbacks in all departments…Even if the story had been brilliant, I don’t think that we could ever have lived up to the audience’s expectations with this approach.” And sheesh is the story ever not brilliant. Reeve is game, and Gene Hackman returns as Lex Luthor after his principled absence from the third film, but the supporting cast are horribly underwritten, from Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) to hardheaded businesswoman Lacy (Mariel Hemingway) who’s seemingly turned from her ruthless tabloid ways by a single glimpse of Clark Kent.
Worst, it’s all in service of a dull, preachy plot about nuclear proliferation that builds to undoubtedly the single lamest foe our onscreen Supes has ever faced in Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow, voiced by Gene Hackman). While ostensibly supposed to be a kind of inverse (almost Bizarro) Superman, borne of the Kryptonian’s DNA and forged in the radiation of the sun, in fact Nuclear Man is hampered by the absolute worst Achilles heel: he shuts down completely when not standing in direct sunlight. So, yeah, Superman with his laser beams and super-strength and flight and everything is a teensy bit under-matched when his foe can be defeated by shade, or, you know, going inside. Which makes it all the more ridiculous that Supes has to move the moon to cause an eclipse in order to best him.
It’s basically a huge d’oh of a movie from beginning to end, and to think that there exists somewhere a rumored additional 45 minutes of footage, featuring a second Nuclear Man (actually the first chronologically, and even weaker than the one who remains) that was cut out because of poisonous test screenings… the mind boggles. And don’t get us started on the awfulness of Jon Cryer as Luthor’s nephew (who actually refers to Superman as “the Dude of Steel!”), or the sudden obsession Nuclear Man develops with Lacy or… we could go on. Interesting aside though, part of Reeve’s deal in donning the cape a fourth time was that Cannon would finance his next project. The result, “Street Smart” may not have troubled the box office in any big way, but it’s an interesting little film that did a great job of launching Morgan Freeman to stardom and to a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. In all other ways, ‘The Quest for Peace’ is a failure, and director Sidney J. Furie, with the exception of the Diana Ross Billie Holiday Biopic “Lady Sings the Blues,” has the kind of back catalog of titles that make you wonder if you’ve strayed into a parallel universe — everything sounds like a movie you’ve heard of, but isn’t it.
Choice quote: Superman: “You’ve broken all the laws of man, Luthor. Now it looks as though you’ve broken all the laws of nature, too. I can only assume you must have hidden a device of some kind on one of the missiles I hurled into the sun.”
Second Worst: “Superman III”
First, a small confession. While we’re not going to go to bat for the quality of this film in any way, a recent re-watch did remind us just how many moments and scenes from “Superman III” are somehow firmly ingrained in our subconscious (no doubt generational) — from the kid unconscious in the path of the thresher to Richard Pryor skiing down the side of a skyscraper, to “bad” Superman smashing bottles of booze by flicking peanuts at them off a bar, to good Superman freezing and then dropping a lake onto a chemical fire. Elements that failed to stay with us, however, include the villain, the goal of his plot and the entire final act of the film. Which is kind of appropriate, because the film is really little more then a series of sketches, which range from the funny — Pryor’s role here may be ill-conceived, but he’s got moments and we’re not sure why but the totally unfounded scene where he shows up dressed as a four-star general from the Pentagon always makes us laugh — to the tiresome, viz the extended silliness involving a blind man, some marbles, a hole in the ground, and a mime. If Hackman’s Luthor was never the most terrifying of arch-villains, Robert Vaughn’s Webster is even less so (Vaughn stepped in after Hackman refused citing the producers’ mistreatment of Richard Donner as his reason) and is marooned in a logic-free plot that relies so blithely on the audience’s ignorance of these new-fangled “computers” that, now at least, it kind of ensures you’re smirking through even those few scenes that aren’t actually played for laughs.
Of course, not having any superpowers of his own, Webster would hardly be much of a match for Superman, so — and this is where the film really trips over its own tail — the plot contrives to have Superman go “bad” (signaled by developing a 5 o’clock shadow, hitting on Lana Lang and, er, straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa). And then “bad” Superman gets to fight himself (as Clark Kent, for some reason) because of that power we never knew he had and never displays again, to essentially bi-locate. It made us wonder if the fight scene was not actually meant literally, but as some sort of metaphor for Supes slaying his demons, but then why is it so long, and laboriously involved in a I-put-you-in-a-compacter-you-crush-me-with-a-magnet type way? Anyway, it’s all very silly, but it does feature Pamela Stephenson in the sexy villain sidekick role (Billy Connolly’s wife and a contestant on the only season of the UK’s “Strictly Come Dancing” that we watched, and she was robbed.) So there’s that, and Richard Pryor’s comedy slow-take reactions to enjoy.
Choice quote: Evil Superman to Clark Kent: “Come on chicken! You’ve been on my nerves for a long time!”
The Middle of the Pack: “Superman Returns”
Oh, Bryan Singer, you brought such a lot to your take on Superman: a perfectly cast lead (for our money, Brandon Routh did a fine job as both Clark and Superman, nodding to but never directly ripping off Reeve’s incarnation), a perfectly cast villain (Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor), some really outstanding visuals and some interesting, potentially fertile ideas (Superman’s son; the world needing/not needing a savior). So how the hell did you forget to pack any stakes? Our level of childhood investment in the Superman franchise is such that we were genuinely excited to witness Superman’s return after the 19-year hiatus occasioned by the awful critical, and poor commercial, reception of “Superman IV” so really the most damning thing we can say is that apart from a brief flutter when John Williams’ iconic tune rang out for the first time, we were almost completely unmoved by “Superman Returns.” As handsomely mounted and solidly played as it was, it is also so un-involving as to be a bit dull in parts, especially with the ham-fisted handling of what should have been a home-run addition in the father-son theme. The miscasting of Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (just too slight and pretty a presence to bring any depth of feeling to an underwritten role), and the lack of any surprise around the paternity of her son, or indeed even of any particular moments of interest as the boy discovers his powers, bar one flinging-of-a-grand-piano, mean that at its emotional heart, the film is empty.
And so we start to look at the window dressing like Parker Posey’s outfits (terrific) instead, and to wonder about other things, like whether James Marsden is ever not going to be cast as the guy who gets the girl that the hero truly loves? And in the meantime we’ve kind of lost any attachment to the plot, which is something about creating a new land mass and submerging half of North America in the process, a nod to the first “Superman” film’s real-estate swindle-style plot. But couldn’t they have chosen a more interesting thing to nod to? It really is a case of a film that had everything going for it, a big budget (somewhere north of $200m, we’re told), a passionate director with a track record in superhero films, an audience (well, us anyway) practically panting in anticipation and even the blessing of original “Superman” director Richard Donner, but, at 154 minutes instead of flying by like a bird or a plane, “Superman Returns” just sits there, pretty but inert. It was hardly a flop, pulling in just under $400m worldwide, and for a few years afterward there was (occasionally quite firm) word of a sequel with all the principal cast and Singer returning — apparently the mooted sequel was the reason Singer hopped off the talent carousel that continues around the “Logan’s Run” remake to this day. But one by one, the key players fell by the wayside, attracted to other projects or simply frustrated by the lack of action (hey! like the viewers!) until in 2008 Warner Bros. announced a reboot rather than a sequel was in the works. And the rest is “Man of Steel” history, or at least it will be, come this weekend. Gotta feel a bit sorry for Routh.
Choice quote: Superman: “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one..”
Second Best: “Superman II”
You know, in the hard, cruel game of film criticism (obviously regarded as one of the toughest professions out there, right up there with lumberjack-ing or oil rig roustabout-ing), sometimes your heart has to take a backseat to your head. “Superman II” is probably our favorite of all the Superman films to date, but with the best will in the world, we can’t pretend it actually stacks up better over the years as a film than Donner’s original “Superman.” So we’re giving it the second spot on the list, though our inner child is all like “What’s up with that?” and stomping off to its room heartbroken. Despite the tendency to lurch into comedy oddly at times (an inclination that would then be expanded to “Airplane”-levels of zany antics in “Superman III”) and some effects that just look terrible now even if they BLEW OUR YOUNG MINDS back then (the Phantom Zone prison thingie the trio of evildoers are trapped in was astounding back in those innocent times; looks a bit shit now), “Superman II” does still boast some great elements. And chief among them has to be Terence Stamp’s Zod who is just an infinitely more threatening and interesting villain than Hackman’s Luthor, and still stands as the series’ best (no wonder that’s where Zack Snyder & Co. are returning to for “Man of Steel”).
The real edge of menace he brings, plus the feeling that Superman could actually get beaten here (and then of course he does, temporarily), mark this film out as something special in purely story terms. And with Superman electing to shuck off his powers and responsibilities for Love, and coming to realize the wrongness of that decision, it feels like here he has the most involving and satisfying arc, pitted for once against a truly worthy adversary who also brings to light his inner struggle. It’s a shame, then that while a laudable effort is made to encompass all shades from light to dark, the lighter ”campier” elements are widely credited to Richard Lester who replaced Richard Donner when Donner disagreed with the more comedic direction in which the producers wanted to go, and the stitches between the two contrasting styles are very visible, even more so in retrospect than at the time, thus pulling “Superman II” up short of greatness. Everywhere except in our heart of hearts where nostalgia still has us standing on the stairs wrapped a bin bag screaming “Kneel before Zod!” at the family cat.
Choice quote: General Zod: “This ‘super-man’ is nothing of the kind; I’ve discovered his weakness…He cares. He actually cares for these Earth people.”
An “event movie” back when that concept was still in its infancy (“Jaws,” widely regarded as the first such, was only three years prior), the first “Superman” film still sits atop the canon in large part due to the fact that, in being essentially an extended origin story, there’s a built-in simplicity to the narrative arc that doesn’t then need to be greatly embellished with bells and whistles that almost always age badly. And so it’s still to this day a satisfying watch, aside from the ever-problematic “turning back time” ending (which was clearly Donner’s go-to ending of choice, see ‘Superman II: The Donner Cut” below), and pacing that to the modern eye can certainly lag at times.
Arguably Reeve was never better than here, his charming goofiness as Clark as he falls in love for the first time, gets his first job, moves to the Big City all providing a perfectly relatable counterpoint to the cape and boots heroics of Superman. And this is Hackman’s best outing as Luthor too, in which the cartoonish aspects of the later films had not yet overwhelmed any sense of him as a real threat to Superman, and with Supes himself really only finding his feet as a superhero, villain and hero are here more evenly matched than they would be any other time, except with Zod.
And the film of course benefits from taking on the origin story, rather than being a “continued adventures of…” (“Man of Steel” as a reboot, will cover some of the same ground), so there is a kind of built-in emotional core to the simple corn-fed goodness in which Clark is raised and how that wars with and then ultimately complements his super-ness. With the emphasis on story (that is, character and narrative and theme) over just plot, boasting Marlon Brando’s crazily expensive cameo as Jor-El and achieving a relative grounded-ness and tonal consistency that none of its sequels would manage, “Superman” was the first, and is still the best (so far) movie version of the Man of Steel we’ve seen.
Choice Quote: Young Clark: “I mean every time I kick the football I can make a touchdown. Every time! I mean, is it showing off if somebody’s doing the things he’s capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?”
“Supergirl” is a trashy, dull and generally piss-poor spin off/would-be cash-in that is so lazily thrown together that the phrase “pocket of trans-dimensional space” is all the explanation we ever get for the continued existence of an entire Kryptonian city after the death of the planet. Helen Slater is a pretty but blank bambi in the title role, and though the cast is packed with ringers (Peter Cook, Mia Farrow, Peter O’Toole, Faye Dunaway in a grotesque red wig that makes her look like King Charles II), it’s clear all of them have just turned up for the paycheck. A nonsense plot about Superman’s female cousin traveling to earth to retrieve a gizmo essential to supporting life in her home city (which is apparently made out of chewing gum and cling film — perhaps part of the problem?) the film skirts around the Superman canon, including using Lucy Lane (Lois’ sister) and Jimmy Olsen (Mark McLure, the only actor to appear in all 5 of the 70s/80s Superman efforts) as supporting characters, without actually landing the Christopher Reeve cameo it was originally supposed to have that might have lent it some legitimacy. Isn’t it always the way that just the week you’re off-planet solving some ill-defined galactic problem or other, the cousin you had no idea you had, and fellow survivor of a race you thought completely obliterated otherwise, comes to visit? It’s really pretty awful, and not wholly part of the Superman movie canon, (though the Salkinds again produced it), so we didn’t include it in our rundown. However if we had, it would probably have stolen the booby prize given to “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” for bottom place.
Choice quote: Jimmy Olsen: “It’s all right, Supergirl. We never saw you.” Lucy Lane: “We never even heard of you.”
And finally, we couldn’t not mention the 2006 edition of “Superman II: The Donner Cut.” If anyone is credited with being the definitive Superman director to date, it’s Richard Donner, despite having only 1 1/2 of the films here really to his name. The story goes that Donner shot a lot of footage for “Superman II” concurrently with “Superman,” but then fell out with the producers who wanted more goofiness and hired Richard Lester as director for the sequel instead. Lester for his part, used some Donner footage, and cleaved more or less to the same storyline, but he re-shot a great deal too. Which meant that there was in fact a lot of original footage never seen in the film, and it was that that Donner mined for the DVD Blu-Ray of his director’s cut. The result is a film in which it’s claimed that 83% of the footage used is Donner’s, and it makes it a very different movie from the theatrical version. While it would be unfair to try and include it in the main list, as it never got a theatrical release and there’s still nearly a fifth of it that would not have been shot the way Donner had envisaged, and some of what is there is unfinished test footage, having watched both versions we can say that the Donner cut does certainly have fewer tonal inconsistencies than the version we saw in theaters, and that was one of the main issues with that film, that kept it from our top spot.
But it’s not like there would have been no comedy at all in this version, as it should be remembered that Hackman’s refusal to return to film scenes with Lester meant that all the footage we’ve ever seen of Luthor was shot under Donner’s tutelage. And that gets pretty broad (which it can, because Luthor is here more of a sidekick villain to the Phantom Zone trio’s actual threat) — I mean, a balloon escape? Other notable differences are in the treatment of the Lois and Clark relationship which is more nuanced and more tipped in Lois’ favor here (the fundamental silliness of her “ace reporter” schtick not allowing her to see past a guy’s glasses is at least partly addressed) and a more dramatic and thematically resonant scene of Superman regaining his powers, rendering literal the “father becomes the son” motif, and richer for being able to use the Marlon Brando footage that the producers dumped from the theatrical version to avoid paying Brando his fee. However it’s not all aces, as the ending goes back to the “reversing time” well of the first film, and leaves you with the frustration of having watched a whole (very good) film about stuff that never actually happened. To say nothing of the illogic of having Clark Kent go back and beat up the guy in the truck stop when the original incident would never have happened… Who’s to say what could have been, but it is possible that Donner’s “Superman II” would have topped this list. This version, however, indicates that as much as it may have addressed some of the Lester version’s issues, there would have been some others introduced which to our mind would likely have meant it was always going to play second fiddle.
Choice Quote: Superman: “Father… if you can hear me… I failed… I’ve failed you, I’ve failed myself… and all humanity. I’ve traded my birthright… for a life of submission in a world ruled by your enemies…”
And there we have it. Aside from Singer’s incarnation splitting the list down the middle, we have essentially the law of diminishing returns in action when it comes to the original Superman franchise. Or do you disagree?